The Crime Scene: The US Economy

(11 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

Cross posted from The Stars Hollow Gazette

The surprise announcement by President Barack Obama that he was appointing New York State’s Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to head a new group, the Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities Working Group, that would be investigating securities fraud from the housing bubble and financial crisis. The announcement elicited some interesting reactions from the President’s supporters and critics expressing both praise and doubt about the new committee and just how much force it would really have considering the other appointees to the panel. Public opinion seems to be that few if any of the real perpetrators of the housing bubble and financial crisis have been held accountable.

On Friday, the group held its first press conference. US Attorney General Eic Holder, along with Mr. Schneiderman and Housing Secretary Scott Donovan, explained the purpose of the group, on what it would be focusing some of its powers and announced it had already issued 11 subpoenas:

“We are wasting no time in aggressively pursuing any and all leads,” Mr. Holder said. “In sending out those subpoenas, we consulted with the S.E.C. in making a determination as to where they should go.” Officials would not say which companies received the subpoenas.

“We are not going to be looking at the same things they are examining,” he added. “We’re going to be working with them but looking at a separate group of institutions.”

Schneiderman added that by working together with the SEC, IRS and Justice Department state Attorneys Generals would give them more information with which to bring prosecutions and civil suits at the state level:

In addition, the New York State Martin Act, which gives the attorney general broad powers to elicit information during investigations, “is more flexible than federal securities laws,” Mr. Schneiderman said. The New York and Delaware attorneys general also have jurisdiction over the trusts that hold the mortgages that underlie the mortgage-backed securities, making them “the bricks and mortar of this entire structure.”

By coordinating their efforts, group members might be able to share documents and information that usually would be in individual agency silos, Mr. Holder said.

Friday evening, Schneiderman sat down for an interview with MSNB’s Rachel Maddow, where he further discussed the committee’s focus, the agencies that would be involved and the roll of the states. Dayen, who still has strong reservations about the RMBS working group, thinks that the group lacks serious substance mostly because the use of wording like “resolving allegations”, not “crimes” and the lack of supporting staff and the appearance of disinterest by Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division Lanny Breuer who was absent at the press conference. However, he does see some promise. In the past, the IRS was reluctant to get involved, but as David Dayen at FDL News Desk indicated there could be huge tax fraud implications:

But I want to pull out the sentence I highlighted previously in Schneiderman’s interview which shows that at least he is thinking creatively about this. He said that “We have the Internal Revenue Service in because there are huge tax fraud implications to some of the stuff that went on.” I suppose he could be talking about a few different things (like the tax evasion from the banks using MERS instead of recording mortgage transfers at public records offices and paying a fee), but my guess is he’s talking about REMIC claims.

REMICs are an acronym for Real Estate Mortgage Investment Conduits. When you’re talking about mortgage pools used in securitization, you’re talking about REMICs. And REMICs have special tax treatment; they are exempt from federal taxes provided they only invest in “qualified mortgages” and other permitted investments. Here’s the important part: under the 1986 Tax Reform Act, the REMIC must receive all of its assets in the trust within 90 days and the assets have to be performing (not in default). Any REMIC violations make the vehicle subject to a penalty tax of 100%, with additional penalties as they apply.

Well, the strong suspicion is that, during the bubble years, the trustees did not properly convey the mortgages to the REMICs. Which makes the whole investment vehicle a massive tax fraud. That’s a huge level of exposure. You’re talking about $3 trillion in REMICs.

This obviously goes much deeper than fraud.

I became Attorney General about a year ago and started digging into this, and realized that New York and Delaware, which is why my collaboration with Beau Biden was so important, we had a unique place. Because all of the mortgage-backed securities were actually pools of mortgages deposited into New York trusts or Delaware trusts. We started looking at what she’s talking about, did they actually get all the paperwork done, things like that. And we realized that there’s a lot of work to do but a lot of potential for proving liability. [..]

To get this done Rachel, you need resources, you need jurisdiction, and you need will. And when I stood there today with Eric Holder and my other colleagues in government and other prosecutors, I really felt that we had that level of commitment […] what we realized as we started to go back and forth over the last few months is that we all need to work together. There are situations that, New York’s securities law is a stronger law in some ways than the federal laws. Some of our statutes of limitations, though, are shorter. So we can’t go as far back. The federal statute is longer. We need everyone together. And the folks that we have in on this… the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Rich Cordray just, a whole array of new powers just came into existence with his appointment, which the President just got done very recently. That’s a huge addition. We have the Internal Revenue Service in, because there are huge tax fraud implications to some of the stuff that went on. All of the people who are in this, all of the agencies who are designated, working together, can achieve so much more than any one of us on our own.

h/t David Dayen for the transcript.

There is still a lot of doubt about this commission and it’s purpose and goals. Matt Stoller at naked capitalism is curious to know if this panel will indict Vikram Pandit, the CEO of Citibank, for possible violations of Sarbanes-Oxley. He sees two problems with this task force. The first is the Obama administration’s policy “to protect the banking system’s basic architecture, which means the compensation structure and the existing personnel who run these large institutions.” And secondly:

Obama personally believes in the legitimacy of the existing banking institutional framework and he strongly suspects that no crimes were committed.  He has hired a raft of people – including Jack Lew, Tim Geithner, Eric Holder, Larry Summers, and so on and so forth – who agree, and has implemented policies such as Dodd-Frank that assume as much. [..]

These people aren’t stupid, they aren’t without principles, and they aren’t electorally driven.  They are ideologues.  They really believe in a neoliberal political economy, where government throws money at the economy through private channels and private channels do with it whatever they think best.

That’s quite a conflict of ideologies. Stoller concludes with more questions and doubts:

There are many details of the task force that are as of yet not public, so it is not clear to me that doing a case like this is possible.  But it’s quite obvious that mega-bank officials and regulators lying about the perilous state of various financial institutions to the public was a key part of the crisis, and that accountability on this front is probably critical to restoring faith in the system.  It would certainly be a big statement upfront if this is what this task force attempted to take on.  Will it?  That’s a very good question, and one I hope we get answers to, soon.

Here’s hoping that this isn’t just an election year sham and Eric Schneiderman has the will to stand up to the Obama neoliberals.  

1 comment

    • TMC on January 31, 2012 at 2:02 pm
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